Sunday, April 19, 2009
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
Dante, Rimbaud, Eliot, Whitman, Shelley, Keats, cummings, Timrod, Blake…
Bob Dylan may be the ultimate chameleon, but he’s also an avid collector. And over the years, the collection of characters who’ve appeared in Dylan’s lyrics is trumped only by the manner in which Bob has transformed those distinct, disparate voices into his own.
For Shakespeare the play was the thing. For Dylan it’s always been about the words.
I wasn’t sure, therefore, how to react to last week’s confirmation that Bob collaborated with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, on 9 of the 10 tracks on his upcoming album, Together Through Life.
Maybe it’s a sign of the modern times in which we live. In an era where style trumps substance, the notion that our politicians, pop stars and public figures are propped up by an army of minions clamoring to craft an image that feeds our incessant need for idolatry has become all too commonplace.
But as we look out over what seems to be a vast wasteland of perpetual despondency, we’re not looking for iconoclasts to console us. What we’re really searching for is someone to break through the clutter, to give us a sense of direction, to help us find our way home. We’re looking for clarity.
In recent months, a barrage of bloggers (this disgruntled Dylan fan not excluded) have drawn parallels between Barack Obama and Bob Dylan. But then again, the comparisons aren’t totally unfounded. Dylan isn’t the only cultural chameleon out there.
Like the title character in Woody Allen’s brilliantly insightful 1983 mockumentary, Zelig, Obama has perfected the ability to conform to his surroundings. When Obama steps on stage, we see what we want to see. When Obama speaks, we hear what we want to hear. Yet the words he speaks are rarely, if ever, entirely his own.
In a time when our culture is so sanitized, where every action is viewed under such scurrilous scrutiny, the people to whom we look for inspiration can no longer inspire by example— and so they retreat to linguistics. It’s not so much what they say, but rather how they say it, by which they are evaluated.
The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was the last American president to put pen to paper. The “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps his most famous piece of oratory, clocked in at 278 words and took less than 3 minutes to deliver. But in those 3 minutes, Lincoln embodied a nation's pain and suffering with words so enduring that they are now etched in aeternum in marble.
There have been endless comparisons between Lincoln and the man who currently resides in that mansion on the hill. But whether you like him or hate him, you cannot dismiss Barack Obama. He may not write every word that comes out of his mouth, but he is hardly an empty oratory vessel. His predecessors may have spoken to the ‘vision thing,’ but Barack Obama embodies it.
With Bob Dylan, however, ‘embodying’ an artistic vision isn’t enough. With Bob, the words matter.
The issue here isn’t that Bob wrote a couple of songs with someone else— even if that ‘someone else’ just may be the second greatest living lyricist in the English language. The issue is about purity of vision, not persuasiveness of delivery. It’s about clarity.
Dylan is coming off what many consider one of rock’s perfect ‘trifectas.’ Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times are not just high creative benchmarks for Bob, they are the gold standard by which all other musicians could, and very well may, be measured.
And so the news that Dylan collaborated with another wordsmith naturally would raise a few questions. Did he need to do it? How much of it did he do? Did he even really do it at all?
Dylan and Robert Hunter have been down this road before. The two worked up a few songs together for Dylan’s 1988 album, Down in the Groove. But these were hardly a threat to the Dylan canon, musically or lyrically. They were almost transitional, as if Dylan was in some sort of Dantesque state of limbo. As we later found out in his biography, Chronicles, he was.
And lest we forget that Dylan and playwright, Jacques Levy, wrote an entire album of songs in 1976 (ironically, in 1965, Levy directed Red Cross, a play by Sam Shepard with whom Dylan would later co-write the epic, 11-minute yarn, ‘Brownsville Girl’). And while the Dylan-Levy collaboration stands as one of Dylan’s most commercially successful endeavors, there’s no debate that the songs on Desire are all distinctively Dylan.
And maybe that’s the point.
Dylan always hated being heralded as a ‘poet,’ a ‘prophet,’ the ‘voice of a generation.’ Perhaps now we know why. Sometimes accolades do more to weight us down than they do to lift us up.
And after nearly a half century of accolades, can any of us really know the full extent of the load we’ve asked Dylan to carry.
And when you look at it from that perspective, can we really fault Dylan for wanting to share his burden—and his vision—with someone else? Even if sharing that vision does run the risk they might see if from a different point of view…
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Sunday, April 12, 2009
‘Together Through Life’: Is Dylan’s changing relationship with Barack Obama a telltale sign of things to come?
Oh well, I love you pretty baby
You’re the only love I’ve ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne
A perennial fixture on the American political scene for the last 40 years, he has engaged, enraged, and probably even entertained the notion a few times. But despite his entrenchment in the country's political dialogue, Bob Dylan had never outright endorsed a presidential candidate.
Then last June, seemingly out of nowhere, one of the most guarded, poker-faced figures of the 20th century laid his cards on the table—
“Right now America is in a state of upheaval,” he said in that slow, measured meter that forces you hang on his every word. “But we’ve got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up. He’s redefining what a politician is. Yes, I’m hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.”
Ever the astute politician, the junior senator from Illinois quickly returned the accolade by telling Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone, “[there are] probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod,” including “the entire Blood on the Tracks album.” And just like that, the fate of perhaps the most iconoclastic figure of his generation was tangled up in Bob.
Of course, we all know how the story ended. Barack Obama went on be elected the 44th president of the United States. And Dylan? Bob did the only thing he knows how to do, he just kept on keepin’ on…
Then on April 7, in a Q&A session with Bill Flanagan to promote his new album, Together Through Life, Dylan decided to break it off with Barack.
Dylan has always been dismissive of politics: “[It’s] entertainment…a sport. It’s for the well-groomed and well-heeled. The impeccably dressed. Politicians are interchangeable.” The real surprise was his response when asked if Obama would make a good president.
Rather than stick to the script that Obama is going to “redefine American politics,” Dylan started to weave a far more cautionary tale: “Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men.”
Dylan conceded to having read Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father: “His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do.” But clearly, the book had raised more issues for Dylan than it had answered: “He’s got an interesting background,” Dylan said. “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real.”
But just when you thought Dylan might be warming back up to Barack Obama (after all, if anyone knows how to straddle that enigmatic abyss between fact and fiction, it’s Bob Dylan), Dylan resorted to one of his best known tricks— turning a compliment into cantankerous condemnation: “He probably could’ve done anything…the political world came to him. It was there to be had.” No question, the dodgy old Dylan was back.
At 67, Bob Dylan has spent a lifetime re-inventing himself. So while we shouldn’t be completely surprised by his change of heart about Barack Obama, we should take notice.
When it comes to predicting the direction of this country, Dylan may not be the end-all, be-all. He is, however, a startlingly accurate bellwether.
Even at the beginning, Dylan knew where it was at. On September 22, 1961, Dylan performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the first time publicly. One of Dylan’s most politically charged songs, “Hard Rain” warned (among other things) of the horrors of nuclear war.
One month later to the day, President Kennedy appeared on television to announce the discovery of missiles on the island of Cuba, initiating a 13-day cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets that brought the world to brink of nuclear holocaust.
Forty years later, Dylan’s prescient premonitions remain eerily accurate. Dylan’s 2001 album, Love and Theft, was about a country in flames, and then underwater. The record was released on September 11, the very day America saw the World Trade Center towers reduced to a mass of smoldering rubble. Four years later, a deluge of despondency washed across American as the federal government sit idly while the city of New Orleans was literally wiped off the map.
Dylan’s next album, Modern Times was, on one level, a nostalgic nod to the classic Depression-era film by Charlie Chaplin. The disc was filled with soul-searching songs of working people losing faith and losing ground. The fact that the album was released in the summer of 2006, at a time when Wall Street was flying and the housing market was humming along, the record seemed oddly out of place. That is until the markets crashed and all those workingman’s blues came true for millions of Americans.
In two weeks, Dylan will release his 33rd studio album. Titled, Together Through Life, the working moniker for the record was for a while rumored to be, I Fell A Change Coming On.
And while Bob’s predictions have more often than not been alarmingly dead on, Dylan is hardly a harbinger of doom. But based on his past track record, those of us who think and write about Dylan have to wonder exactly Dylan was thinking about when he was writing one.
A few lucky journalists have gotten a sneak peek. The rest of us, however, will just have to wait. But one thing is for sure—
Considering Dylan’s abrupt about face on the man who will be leading us over the next few years, I wouldn’t take anything for granted…
Listen to me, pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ done and nothin’ said
For a full transcript of Dylan’s recent interview with Bill Flanagan, click here.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
And the locusts sang off in the distance,
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody.
Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance,
Yeah, the locusts sang and they were singing for me.
The story behind the second track on Dylan’s 1970 album, New Morning, goes something like this—
In the summer of 1970, Princeton decided to present Dylan with an honorary doctorate. Not surprisingly, the ever-reticent Dylan wasn’t especially high on the idea.
Until, that is, David Crosby entered the picture. In attempt to convince a distrustful Dylan to go to the ceremony, the drug-addled Crosby convinced Dylan to smoke a joint, which increased Dylan’s paranoia but apparently did the trick. Dylan was indoctorated by day's end.
As for the ‘locusts,’ the allusion (as often is the case with Dylan) was both figurative and literal—Bob’s convergence on the quaint college town coincided with Princeton’s 17-yr cicada infestation.
This past week, a different kind of locust converged on Barack Obama as the president opened his town hall press conference to questions from the American public. 92,937 people submitted 103,981 questions and cast 3,602,695 votes in this noble experiment of political empowerment.
The top vote getters included questions related to the financial sector, jobs and the national debt. But in this time of mounting economic crisis, what was the most pungent question on the mind of the American public? Here’s a hint: It was green, but it wasn’t renewable energy.
Of course, a candid discussion on the decriminalization of marijuana shouldn’t have taken Obama completely by surprise. After all, the argument to ‘legalize it’ isn’t all smoke and mirrors. The economy would get a boost, drug cartels would be weakened and the government would make a bundle on federal taxes. But in all fairness, Nobel Laureate economists and drug enforcement agents probably weren’t the demographic dialing in.
So just how did the question of legalizing marijuana get to the top of the list?
Much of the credit goes to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which tapped into the ‘silent majority’ of pot smokers. Admittedly, the high ranking of marijuana-related questions had a distinct tinge of astroturfing. But when the board lit up in favor of putting marijuana reform on the front burner, it was cool that Obama didn’t completely bogart the question.
It didn't prevent him, however, from nipping the question in the bud: "I don't know what that says about the online audience," he said joking before turning solemn. "But the answer is 'no,’ I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."
Yet in all the clamor surrounding the unexpected twist surrounding Obama’s joint press conference with the mainstream press and Main Street America, a very interesting news story got lost in the haze. Just six weeks earlier, George Obama, the president’s half-brother, was been arrested and charged with…wait for it….marijuana possession, or “bhang” as it’s known in Kenya.
“If Timothy Geithner can cheat on his taxes and become Secretary of the Treasury,” brother Obama was rumored to have said, “then this should qualify me to become head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.” It seems the ability to come up with a quick quip runs in the family.
Admittedly, it was interesting to see what's on the minds of the American people when the media gatekeepers get stonewalled. But don’t expect Obama’s “Online Town Hall” to come back around again.
Simply put, sometimes a little control over the system keeps everyone on track— especially true when that system can be so easily manipulated.
Not that Barack Obama shouldn’t take questions from the American public—just don’t be surprised if he refuses to answer them.
Come to think of it, that probably explains why Dylan fans tend not to yell out requests at his shows. The audience knows he isn’t going to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” them just someone has a burning desire to hear the song played for the millionth time.
Video: Obama gives the straight dope on legalizing marijuana
And just for the record, next time you’re all in a huff to hear Bob play “The Day of the Locusts” live, save your breath.
Over the last ten years, Bob’s played 969 concerts, 16,062 songs, and 214 different titles—”The Day of the Locusts” wasn’t one of them...
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.
For a list of all the songs Dylan’s done in concert check out: http://www.fotofabini.com/Dylan/